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01/06/2000 - Department of Health advice on mobile phones and masts (following the Stewart Report)

Full versions of these leaflets are available at the Department of Health website

The balance of current research evidence suggests that exposures to radio waves below levels set out in international guidelines do not cause health problems for the general population. However, there is some evidence that changes in brain activity can occur below these guidelines, but it isn't clear why. There are significant gaps in our scientific knowledge. This has led a group of independent experts - commissioned by Government and headed by Sir William Stewart - to recommend "a precautionary approach" to the use of mobile phones until more research findings become available. If you use a mobile phone, you can choose to minimise your exposure to radio waves. These are ways to do so:

  • keep your calls short.
  • consider relative SAR values (see over page) when buying a new phone.

Driving

Anything that distracts a driver increases the risk of an accident - posing a threat to pedestrians, cyclists, passengers and other road users. You must be in proper control of your vehicle while you are driving. Any lack of concentration or momentary inattention may result in your being prosecuted. Even using a hands-free phone while driving will distract you.

For more details see leaflet "Mobile Phones and Driving" issued by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Children and young people under 16

Mobile phones are very popular with young people and have obvious attractions for personal security and keeping in touch with others. Parents and young people should make their own informed choices about the use of mobile phones. The current balance of evidence does not show health problems caused by using mobile phones.

However the research does show that using mobile phones affects brain activity. There are also significant gaps in our scientific knowledge. Because the head and nervous system are still developing into the teenage years, the expert group considered that if there are any unrecognised health risks from mobile phone use, then children and young people might be more vulnerable than adults.

The expert group has therefore recommended that in line with a precautionary approach, the widespread use of mobile phones by children (under the age of 16) should be discouraged for non-essential calls.

In the light of this recommendation the UK Chief Medical Officers strongly advise that where children and young people do use mobile phones, they should be encouraged to:

  • use mobile phones for essential purposes only
  • keep all calls short - talking for long periods prolongs exposure and should be discouraged

The UK CMOs recommend that if parents want to avoid their children being subject to any possible risk that might be identified in the future, the way to do so is to exercise their choice not to let their children use mobile phones.

At work

Mobile phones are often used at work. They can have benefits for safety, efficiency and convenience of employers and staff. Employers have legal duties to protect the health and safety of their employees. The Health and Safety Executive advises employers that they should instruct staff not to use mobile phones while driving, or doing anything else where safety is important and their use might interfere with concentration.

Where employers require staff to use a mobile phone, and concerns about possible health impacts are raised, employers could respond by, for example:

  • explaining that mobile phones operate within international guidelines.
  • giving staff a copy of this leaflet.
  • discussing with concerned staff ways to reduce mobile phone use.

In hospitals and aeroplanes

The radio signals emitted by mobile phone systems can interfere with sensitive electronic equipment. In hospitals, aeroplanes and other restricted areas, observe the warning signs and switch off your mobile when required.

Extract from the DoH BaseStation Leaflet:

Gaps in scientific knowledge led the Stewart Group to recommend a precautionary approach to the use of mobile phones and base stations until more research findings become available. They added that in some cases people's well-being may be adversely affected by insensitive siting of base stations.

Further research is now being set up to keep pace with developments in mobile phone technology. (See companion leaflet, Mobile Phones and Health)

Base stations on or near schools

Although the exposure from base stations will be many times lower than from using a mobile phone, the Stewart Group acknowledged that there was some public concern about base stations located on or near schools. The pattern of radio waves emitted from a base station is generally even, but there is a zone within each cell where the concentration of waves will be slightly higher (see illustration). The base station operator will be able to provide information about the pattern of radio wave emissions or any part of its grounds.

Within the overall distribution of radio waves from a base station across its cell, there is a zone where the concentration is higher than elsewhere. At ground level, this zone is usually some distance from the base station. The radio waves within it are still far below the levels for safety specified in international guidelines.

National audit

Radio waves above a certain level can cause heating effects to the body. International guidelines have been set to keep exposure to radio waves below that level.

Mobile phone network operators in the UK have agreed to comply with these international guidelines. Exposure to radio wave emissions from base stations has been calculated to be thousands of times lower than the maximum levels stipulated by the guidelines.

Some independent measurements have already been made which show compliance. However, starting from Autumn 2000, a comprehensive audit of base stations is being carried out by the Radiocommunications Agency. Base stations will be measured to confirm their compliance with guidelines on emission levels, and the results will be freely available from the Agency (see Information). The audit begins with base stations on school premises.